Trigger Warning: Content includes references to abuse of children in schools, restrictive practices, restraint and seclusion
The image of a little boy in a cage in an Australian school has been seared in to my mind this week. This UN World Autism Awareness Day (Autism Acceptance Day in our family) an inexcusable abuse of the human rights of an Autistic child broke in the news in Australia. It has been reported that a primary school purpose built a cage made of pool fencing for an Autistic boy.
Frighteningly, parents and disability advocates have responded by saying this is not an isolated incident, that seclusion and restraint of students with disabilities is ubiquitous across Australian schools.
* For more information, please visit and support Children with Disability Australia *
Since the news broke, I can not stop imagining my son in that cage, in place of the other boy like him whose rights have been abused. My beautiful son is Autistic, full of spirit and energy. Free.
My son is a child who would be at high risk of abuse from caregivers. He isn’t interested in authority or following the crowd. His intrinsic motivation is high. He’s overwhelmed by too many people, and their noises and smells. He’s at ease when using his body to create movement and noise.
This combination is ill-suited for mainstream schooling with extended sitting times, teacher-directed learning and lesson plans set for a group rather than an individual. Where there are 25 noisy children in a classroom and a playground of 500 or more. Where he would be lucky to get 1:1 support for more than a few hours a week because he’s able to communicate verbally and has a high IQ.Sometimes when he’s overloaded, my son reacts in ways that might be considered challenging. Although as his mum I know it’s usually because we’ve missed his early attempts at communicating that he’s overwhelmed and needs a break.
In a busy classroom with no support, how could a teacher notice these subtle signs that even I fail to spot some days? And how then could a teacher with a classroom full of children, possibly support him gently through a stressful situation?
In a school setting, my son might just be that boy with a purpose built cage.
Or he might be the boy we met in a special education unit within a reputable local public school we visited. When we asked how they catered for twice exceptional children (gifted with a disability) they took us to see the boy who was gifted but couldn’t cope in the classroom so spent all day reading advanced engineering textbooks on his own. My son would be that boy too, segregated from his peers.
He was that boy, actually. Twice he attended small, high quality early childhood programs with experienced educators and an inclusive philosophy. The first time, he spent all day following his Group Leader around, hysterical if she took a lunch break. After two months of “emotional days” (as the daycare described them), we removed him.
With pressure building to ‘socialise him’ as he approached school age, we tried again, at a smaller centre, with only a single small class, three educators, and this time with a 1:1 funded support worker. Despite good intentions, therapist visits, endless meetings and support from us, the accommodations he needed to thrive were not provided. We didn’t ask for much – to be excused from stressful ‘circle time’, to have frequent movement breaks, to access an iPad, and visual supports. He spent much of his day with his aide in a small red tent, outside the classroom and away from the other children. So much for socialisation.We pulled him from kindergarten after his psychologist asked if he had experienced a significant trauma there. He hadn’t, in terms of typical traumatic events. But all of the signs in his body and his behaviour suggested he had (these symptoms I won’t share with strangers on the internet, but they were concerning).
The irony is that at the time, I had been researching for work the topic of toxic stress in young children. A concept formalised by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, who say
The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body (especially the brain), with damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and health across the lifespan.
**More on toxic stress in children here on their website **
I have no doubt my son was demonstrating symptoms of toxic stress.
The very environments that are stimulating and positive for many of his peers, activate and elevate my son’s stress response systems in unhealthy ways. All the good intentions and inclusion support in the world, could not protect his body from the sensory assaults, confusion and stress of a kindergarten setting not able (or willing) to accommodate his needs. Once we recognised the signs, he stopped attending right away, and we spent the months following decompressing together.
I will not give my son PTSD for the sake of socialisation.
He will not go back to a formal educational institution unless he asks to.When people ask me about his socialisation, I inform them about children in cages, ‘time out rooms’, special ed classrooms, and my little boy isolated in his little red tent.
When people ask me about his education, I tell them about a bright little boy who learns best through following his own interests, technology, and who does not learn sitting still in rooms full of children. I tell them of schools who could not see my son’s potential, who could only see disability through a limiting, behaviour-focussed lens.
When people ask me how I feel about the years ahead and homeschooling, or say they don’t know how I do it, I describe the anxious feeling I used to have going to work knowing how stressed my child was in a small supportive kindergarten. I ask them to imagine how sick I would feel leaving him at school now, knowing he is in the care of a system that constantly abuses and fails our children; especially spirited and easily overwhelmed children like mine who are at high risk of restrictive practices?
Having him home with me free to move and vocalise and learn in a way that suits him, is no sacrifice, or challenge on my part compared with the worry I would feel and the stress he would experience in our local public school.
When people ask if I believe in inclusion and mainstreaming in education, I say “Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course”. But my child does not have time to wait for a system to be resourced, for teachers to have more training, for schools to focus more on children’s wellbeing and development than on the results of standardised testing, and for society to stop turning a blind eye to the abuse of our most vulnerable children.
My son can not wait because he is busy being free, not caged. Exploring, not escaping. Learning, not being taught. Discovering his gifts, not being limited by people’s perception of disability. Being loved in his circle of family and friends, not isolated in the name of socialisation.
He is free. As all children have a right to be.